Injured workers in Ontario, Canada who wish to treat their conditions with cannabis are being forced to use opiates instead. According to the CBC, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) is refusing to cover cannabis for patients licensed to use medical marijuana.
Some private insurers in Canada began offering coverage for medicinal marijuana in health plans last year. And earlier this year, Sun Life Financial became the first major Canadian insurance company to pay for medical cannabis.
Pills or Pot?
David Newberry, an attorney with the Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic in Toronto, said that the WSIB often denies workers’ claims for cannabis coverage. Instead, the insurer pays for far more dangerous drugs.
“You often end up with these absurd scenarios where the WSIB is happy to pay for opiates and antidepressants that are not effective, that the worker does not want to take,” Newberry said.
Maurice Sagle, 60, is a former carpenter who was injured in a workplace accident that left him with a compressed spine, several crushed discs, and a ruptured leg muscle. The opiates that doctors prescribed caused side effects including depression that left him homebound. When he felt that he was becoming addicted, he decided it was time for a change.
“The more you do, the more you want to do,” Sagle said. “To me, it was very dangerous stuff. It was pretty well controlling my life. I said, ‘I need to get my life back, I need to do something about this.’”
After researching alternatives, Sagle decided that a strain of cannabis high in CBD and low in THC might help his condition. He consulted with his doctor and obtained his license for medical marijuana. Cannabis relieved his chronic pain without making him high.
“I don’t want to be buzzed out, and can’t afford a fall,” Sagle said.
But when Sagle filed a claim to cover his medicine, the WSIB refused.
“They said they don’t recognize this and they sent me a paper saying no, they wouldn’t cover it,” he said.
The insurer would, however, continue to pay for thousands of dollars worth of opioids.
“We have an opioid epidemic here in Canada. I’m thinking [the WSIB] better get out of the past,” Sagle said.
Sagle is currently appealing the WSIB decision, an expensive process that can take as long as two years.
Christine Arnott of the Ontario WSIB said the insurer is concerned with opioid addiction and is working to address the situation.
“We are focused on limiting exposure to the harms associated with opioid use and lowering risk of addiction. So far we have reduced the number of WSIB drug claims for opioids by 47 percent. We treat requests for coverage of medical marijuana on a case-by-case basis,” Arnott said. “We will continue to help people manage their pain based on evidence, so they can safely return to work.”
And, she noted, the WSIB is “always looking at the evolving scientific evidence around the effectiveness of pain management and update our approach accordingly.”